Singing from the Diaphragm — A Rant

What do singers mean when they talk about singing from the diaphragm? They either mean it as a reference for trying to guide you into feeling the right sensations for abdominal breathing, without explaining the underlying processes, or they legitimately don’t know any better. 

Diagram of the respiratory system, by Theresa Knott (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Besides the very popular diaphragm, the intercostal muscles (the muscles between all of your ribs) also act as breathing muscles. So, although you can’t breathe without your diaphragm, you can use your diaphragm a little less by using the intercostal muscles — that’s usually referred to as chest breathing because it feels like you are mainly using your chest to breathe. Similarly, just using your diaphragm alone is called abdominal breathing.

When the diaphragm contracts, it flattens from a dome shape to a sort of flat muscle disc, creating more space in the lungs, which generates a negative pressure inside the lungs due to which air streams into them — the process of inhalation.

At the same time, however, the space created in the lungs, above the diaphragm, is compensated below: the abdominal organs (liver, kidneys, intestines, etc.) get pushed and squished together; then, the added pressure tries to relieve itself in the front, where your abdominal wall muscles (your “abs”) are holding it all together. The result is that feeling of a stretch in your guts, which may be described as “breathing through the diaphragm”: you feel that sort of chain reaction in your lower body as a result of you deeply breathing in, but, of course, no air is actually getting into the abdomen.

You can then contract your abdominal wall muscles to push back on the guts and, thus, indirectly move the still contracted diaphragm, giving you a mechanism for pressure-controlled exhalation — a process which you may have heard of under the misleading name “breath support”.

That’s the whole point of the entire exercise of bringing your breathing down into or through your diaphragm: so you have better mechanical control over the air release during singing. So you have more control over the airflow, as opposed to in “chest breathing”, where your diaphragm is pushing down less, so the abdominal wall gets less stretched, making it harder to sufficiently engage the abdominal wall muscles in the same way for air release.

It’s also possible to engage both intercostals and the diaphragm to their fullest in a sort of mixed type of breathing (as in without the detriment of “chest breathing”, where your abs can’t sufficiently “support”), but I assume your teacher’s priority is probably first to sensitize you to those body parts first before getting fancy.

That’s probably your most important lesson in singing: singing terminology as it stands is very nebulous and nonsensical, so you’ve always got to reflect on what each term that describes certain sensations means in a real, physical sense. It doesn’t mean that you have got to give up on working with sensations and imagery, but you need to be aware that these sensations and imagery only work when you’re being guided by someone who actually understands the physical and physiological bases behind each one, which is still a rare thing.

2 Comments

  1. Hello Daaaaarling,
    Found this via Reddit. You asked for feedback on the writing. I was super excited to see your article as I need an explicit explanation for it to make sense, and I did pick up a bit more understanding.
    My first question is how many times did you rewrite this for clarity. Any less than 3 or 4, you haven’t even started. Writing like this is A FUCK TON OF WORK. And rewrites. It’s not a blog post you bang out in an hour, or a night. Think of it as technical writing meets “Singing for Dummies”, where you need to describe every noun, action, and theory involved, and consistently use the terms you define uniformly- like breathing, support, abdominal wall, diaphragm (not just what it is or does, but how it feels ‘constricted’ or not constricted), etc..
    You have a lot of terms that you assume the reader understands. (Maybe they do- I have a form of autism where I have an extremely hard time relating with what my body is doing. Bonus: I have a super high pain threshold. Maybe neurotypicals know exactly what you’re saying.)
    ex: better mechanical control over the air release during singing- what does ‘better’ mean? what happens with crap mechanical control? what is the result of better? richer sound? longer held notes? Bigger range? By how much? an octave or a note?
    Ex: So you have more control over the airflow- here again ‘more’ is not measurable. Control how?
    And kill the use of “sort of”. And use nouns rather than articles- not: it goes that way but: your diaphragm moves in the direction of your lungs about an inch.
    Think of describing everything in a super logical way, rather than a ‘feeling’ way. Describe the feeling in technical terms. Look for holes in your explanations, which a newbie won’t know. Step out of what you know, and what a complete novice would need to know to understand.
    It’s almost like explaining to a child. The subject is better suited for a video with some white board/ animated visuals.
    I really appreciate your attempt. A few rewrites and it will be exponentially better. I’d love to see it then. In the meantime I’m going to read the rest of your articles.
    -All the Best.
    ps: Let me give this a try. Think of your lungs as balloons. You breathe in, air comes into your lungs, expanding your balloons. You can take a big big breath and make your balloons large, or a shallow one, as if you are breathing through a straw and the balloons will be puny. The way to be a better singer is not about how much air you breathe in, but how you learn to “control” (more on that later) your abdominal muscles including your rib muscles, in letting that air out.
    Underneath your lungs is a muscle called the diaphragm- think of if I sliced you in half horizontally right below your lungs and inserted a circular muscle overtop that slice the entire diameter of your abdomen horizontally, and sewed you back together. That muscle slice I inserted is your diaphragm. You use it all the time and don’t even know it’s there.
    When you’re relaxed and your balloons are not filled, that diaphragm actually is like a dome rather than a flat slice, with the rise of the dome towards your lungs/head. When you fill your balloons with air, that air has to go somewhere in your body. Your lungs need space to fill up with air so they naturally push out in all directions to let the air in, squishing your abdominal organs down for space, pushing your ribs out thereby expanding your chest and your lungs expanding pushes that dome shaped diaphragm down to where it’s flat and now taunt. This diagpham ‘dome’ muscle, flattening taunt by breathing in and relaxing by breathing out, is the one you learn to use to ‘control’ how the air comes out of your balloons.
    That’s as far as I’ll go here. No edits. Just first cut. Good luck to you!

    1. Hey, thanks for the response! I’m not super good at the interface here, but I you really went above and beyond in your feedback. These changes will definitely be considered when we do more coherent articles on this kind of thing with breathing for voice in general. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: